"the self is a fiction" is a Theravada sectarian position

In a total of 3 places in the 4 principle Nikayas an argument is given to the effect that the self is a fiction.

“But self and what belongs to a self are not acknowledged as a genuine fact. This being so, is not the following a totally foolish teaching:
“Attani ca, bhikkhave, attaniye ca saccato thetato anupalabbhamāne, yampi taṁ diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṁ:

‘The self and the cosmos are one and the same. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, and will last forever and ever’?”
‘so loko so attā, so pecca bhavissāmi nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo, sassatisamaṁ tatheva ṭhassāmī’ti— nanāyaṁ, bhikkhave, kevalo paripūro bāladhammo”ti?

“In that case, Reverend Yamaka, since you don’t acknowledge the Realized One as a genuine fact in the present life, is it appropriate to declare:
“Ettha ca te, āvuso yamaka, diṭṭheva dhamme saccato thetato tathāgate anupalabbhiyamāne, kallaṁ nu te taṁ veyyākaraṇaṁ:

‘As I understand the Buddha’s teaching, a mendicant who has ended the defilements is annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death.’?”
‘tathāhaṁ bhagavatā dhammaṁ desitaṁ ājānāmi, yathā khīṇāsavo bhikkhu kāyassa bhedā ucchijjati vinassati, na hoti paraṁ maraṇā’”ti?


“In that case, Anurādha, since you don’t acknowledge the Realized One as a genuine fact in the present life, is it appropriate to declare:
“Ettha ca te, anurādha, diṭṭheva dhamme saccato thetato tathāgate anupalabbhiyamāne kallaṁ nu te taṁ veyyākaraṇaṁ

‘Reverends, when a Realized One is describing a Realized One—a supreme person, highest of people, who has reached the highest point—they describe them other than these four ways:
yo so, āvuso, tathāgato uttamapuriso paramapuriso paramapattipatto, taṁ tathāgato aññatra imehi catūhi ṭhānehi paññāpayamāno paññāpeti:

After death, a Realized One exists, or doesn’t exist, or both exists and doesn’t exist, or neither exists nor doesn’t exist’?”
‘hoti tathāgato paraṁ maraṇā’ti vā …pe… ‘neva hoti na na hoti tathāgato paraṁ maraṇā’ti vā”ti?

“No, sir.”
“No hetaṁ, bhante”.

The parallels in all three cases omit this argument.




Outside of the above 3 examples, the “not a genuine fact” argument is not given in the 4 principle Nikayas, and in each case the argument is missing from the Agama parallel.



MN2 has a section about the six views and this also appears in the parallel versions. According to Bh. Analayo’s comparison the six views can also be found:

  1. the section on the six views is found elsewhere in Abhidh-k-9, cf. D (4094) mngon pa, nyu 94a5 or Q (5595) thu 142b6 (cf. above note 31); for a discourse quotation of the exposition on the six views cf. also the *Mahāvibhāsā, T 1545 at T XXVII 713b29.

MN2’s section about six views:

When they attend improperly in this way, one of the following six views arises in them and is taken as a genuine fact.
Tassa evaṁ ayoniso manasikaroto channaṁ diṭṭhīnaṁ aññatarā diṭṭhi uppajjati.
The view: ‘My self exists in an absolute sense.’
‘Atthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;
The view: ‘My self does not exist in an absolute sense.’
‘natthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;
The view: ‘I perceive the self with the self.’
‘attanāva attānaṁ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;
The view: ‘I perceive what is not-self with the self.’
‘attanāva anattānaṁ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;
The view: ‘I perceive the self with what is not-self.’
‘anattanāva attānaṁ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;


“the self is a fiction” is a Theravada sectarian position

I don’t think that is quite right, since the Sarvāstivādins also argued this. So did many Mahāyānists.


In the end, a “fiction” is still substantial to the degree that it is there to be misunderstood. It is described in AN 4.49 as a “perversion of perception”, which means self will appear to be more substantial than not-self on account of sensuality and wrong view - that is how that order is perverted according to Snp 2.7. Setting that order rightly, means - on account of virtue, restraint and discernment - the self can appear as a result of wrong view as opposed to a source of views, actions, etc…

I suppose that it is, since there is puggalavada from about 3rd c BCE.

Even for them the atta was a fiction, but the ineffable “person” existed.

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Sorry, don’t understand your point.

They consistently argued that the atta doesn’t exist, but the person does which isn’t the same nor different from the aggregates. Of course, the other schools said this is just atta by another name. Regardless, for them at least they would agree that the atta isn’t a real and genuine fact. The sabhava dhammas where, as was the “person” which was considered to be a real concept. For the other schools, the sabhava dhammas are real whilst all concepts are ultimately unreal. Naturally for Mahayana the sabhava dhammas are also ultimately unreal too, as they are also concepts.

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So the Agama has more authority than the Nikaya? :nerd_face:

Very good quote clarifying the meaning of the phrase: “not acknowledged as a genuine fact”. :pray:t2:

So this teaching “the self and cosmos are one and the same” goes all the way back to RV I.164, which per Jamison and Brereton, functions to disclose the simultaneous connection between ritual (adhiyajñam), cosmos (adhidevatam) and human (adhyātmam) as the meaning of the Mahāvrata (fertility) and Pravargya (hot ghee and milk to the Asvins) rites.


(For those who don’t know), these are the two most common rituals discussed extensively in the semi-secretive, pre-Upanisadic Āranyakas as well. It would make a lot of sense that they are associated with these types of teachings.

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Yes, Jamison and Brereton argue that RV I.164 presents a through point to the “forest study” and rahasya of the Aryankas on the basis of things recorded in Śāṅkhāyana Gṛhya Sūtra.

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Oh, interesting. Do you have a link to their paper? I’ve been investigating how the pañcâgnividyā is found underlying much of the Satapatha Brāhmana and its origins in the RgVeda. These types of connections and discoveries could be related.

Um. It’s in the introductory notes on RV I.164 in their recent translation (2014) of the Rgveda. I recommend you search academia.edu for Stephanie W. Jamison, Joel P. Brereton (The Rigveda). As far as I can tell so far the hymns of Dīrghatamas have greater connection to the Taittirīya Shaka.

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Hi @Danny thanks for that, it demonstrates exactly what I am saying.

first of all, this is another example of a place where @sujato 's translations can be a little misleading;

here he translates

‘natthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;


The view: ‘My self does not exist in an absolute sense.’

As I have pointed out elsewhere, “in an absolute sense” is editorialising on @sujato’s part, and aññatarā diṭṭhi uppajjati. does not really match up with “as a genuine fact” (i.e the opposite of anupalabbhamāne) but rather is more literally rendered as “arises as a view held with certainty” or some such.

So in MN2 we are told that the view “my self does not exist” should not be taken as established with certainty.

In MN22 however what is being said, and rendered by “not a genuine fact” is something more like “a self cannot truly be found (in phenomenal reality)”.

So not only does the term not occur in the same way in MN22, with the english rendering obscuring that fact in this case, but even if it did, MN2 would militate against the sense of the 3 suttas sited, as it in fact says that we should not accept the view that “the self doesn’t exist” (i.e that the self is a fiction).

So thanks for reinforcing my point I guess.

Finally just on the

The MA parallel to MN2 is MA10, the relevant section is given below, it also omits any reference to “genuine facts” (which of course MN2 also omits, it being only the English rendering that conflates the terms)

Ordinary foolish people can’t hear the right teaching, don’t meet genuine friends, and don’t know the noble teaching.
They aren’t disciplined by the noble teaching and don’t truly know the teaching.
Because they don’t correctly contemplate, they then think,
‘I have past lives.’
‘I have no past lives.’
‘What were the causes of my past lives?’
‘What were my past lives?’
‘I’ll have future lives.’
‘I’ll have no future lives.’
‘What will be the causes of my future lives?’
‘What will be my future lives?’

“They doubt themselves, saying:
‘What’s the meaning of this?’
‘What is this?’
‘Where did this sentient being come from?’
‘Where will it go?’
‘What were the causes for its existence in the past?’
‘What will be the causes for its existence in the future?’

“Thus, they incorrectly contemplate.
As a result of those six views, this view arises:
‘There really is a soul.’
That view gives rise to [this view]:
‘There really is no soul.’
That view gives rise to [this view]:
‘The soul sees the soul.’
That views gives rise to [this view]:
‘The soul sees what’s not the soul.’
That view gives rise to [this view]:
‘What’s not the soul sees the soul.’
That view gives rise to [these views]:
‘The soul speaks, knows, acts, teaches, initiates actions, and initiates teachings.
It’s born in one place or another and receives the results of good and bad [actions],’
‘It certainly comes from nowhere …
certainly doesn’t exist …
certainly won’t exist.’

“This is called the downfall of views, being moved by views, and being tied by the bond of views.
As a result, ordinary foolish people are subject to the pain of birth, old age, illness, and death.